Roman Mornings

2 September 2013
Ben Pentreath

I have a feeling that one of two readers would like to see what’s up in Dorset (judging from the comments section). And I must admit, so would I. From time to time, there are moments where I’d dearly like to be in two places at once.

Yesterday – one of those beautiful, late late summer days with a little hint of autumn in the air, I would have loved nothing more than to have been waking early in Dorset and spending the whole day in the veg patch, which I know will have gone entirely crazy in the last three weeks. But equally, when you’ve been travelling, it’s good to stay still. And so I’d decided early on that by far the best thing was to stay in London, and have a quiet weekend catching up. Which I loved just as much, and kept on thanking my lucky stars I hadn’t taken the 3 hour train journey west, and wasn’t about to take a 3 hour train journey back to London this morning.

I’m obsessed by early September: the time of new notebooks and the new school year, which somehow still runs rather deep in my psyche. So much more the new year than January, to my mind. This weekend we’ve been on the tipping point of that hectic new start. I love the moment of pause – almost as if we are caught in a freeze frame – that has been the moment when 31st August clinks gently into 1st September… and the helper skelter ride begins. All the more appropriate that it’s happened over a weekend.

For a moment, I’ve been reflecting once or twice on some wonderful few days in Rome. I don’t think I’ve walked and looked and photographed so much in years. A very very long time ago, I read James Lees-Milne’s Roman Mornings and perhaps it’s time to dig out that book again now. For me, I must admit, Rome has been all about the mornings… getting up and enjoying the deserted city, which itself will be yawning and shaking itself this morning for the return to real life after the ubiquitous August closure. But then despite how tired I would get – it goes without saying that I was seriously missing my afternoon glass or three of delicious wine, or peroni, followed by an even more delicious two hour nap – well, nonetheless, it was somehow time to carry on walking. Perhaps more than any other city I know, there is always something glimpsed around every corner, leading you on relentlessly.

A little corner – which leads, to the right, literally into a tiny dead-end mews – around the corner from my hotel. But I realised later that this fine facade forms the northernmost termination of a beautiful, long street, Via Belsiana. You could see the arched door from a very long way away.

At 7am there is no one on the Spanish steps. Which makes it an excellent time to take your wedding photographs, so long, of course, as you don’t want to look bleary eyed in each shot, which I am afraid might be a danger in this particular case.

What I love most of all about Rome is the narrow glimpses that suggest… time to stop, go back, and have a look.

I am not sure I can remember the name of this jewel-like church.

You’d be hard pushed to find something this wonderful in London. Everything here this good has had the life restored out of it.

The Trevi Fountain was not flowing.

Something was up.

Cleaning. The guy standing up top might have been a relative of Il Duce. He didn’t seem to be doing very much.

Although he did deign to help get the hose out of the window. Who knew that there was a hose behind that window?

Have you ever wondered what happens to the millions of coins that get thrown in to the Trevi Fountain? They get swept up the next morning, before anyone is awake.

€3000 is thrown into the fountain every day. The coins are collected every morning at dawn and given to a local charity.

You know, I want to look this good when I walk to work, when I’m a bit older.

The start of my recurring obsession with Italian shop signs. (For further examples of this obsession may I refer you to Tipografia Sicilia?)

I popped into Canova’s studio on via Babuino, now a crazy cafe, filled with rather dreadful but en-masse beautiful plaster models by his assistant’s assistant (?), who finally inherited the rather wonderful building, Tadolini. I would say worth a stop for a coffee, if you are passing, and have a strong stomach for late 19th century statuary.

Walking on busy Via del Tritone I spied this tiny shop on the other side of the road – a tiny gentleman’s outfitters. I was fascinated by the signage inside. That implied something rather special. I crossed (taking my life in my hands) to find the most remarkable interior, intact since it was installed in 1907.

I bought a beautiful dark navy blue-with-chocolate-stripes knitted tie as part of my charm offensive to ask the owner if I could photograph her store (there was a sign in the window saying no photography). The shop had been set up by her great grandfather. She was elderly, herself, but still rather… racy…

I was rather relieved we don’t have quite the same dress code at Ben P towers.

I was on my way to Borromini’s first major church in Rome, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.

I’d been to the church a few times but the Crypt had never been open. A strange haunting place, although impossible to photograph.

It’s hard to get over Borromini’s insane creations. How one would begin to describe this in a set of AutoCAD computer drawings these days, I am not entirely sure? Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry… eat your heart out.

(just in case you needed to buy any of these).

I think I’d quite like to park my bike here and call it home.

This wonderful old lady guards the door to an apartment building on Via dei Prefetti. Food-minded people will like Obika Mozarella bar directly across the piazza. Perfect.

Another Roman favourite, Maccheroni.

I’ve got a lot of time for a church that is actually a block of flats.

The Caravaggio altarpieces in S. Luigi dei Francesi are extraordinary. It is so fine seeing great paintings in their original context. You understand (for instance) the importance of the natural light source in relation to the architecture of the composition.

The church also has some fine neoclassical chapels.

And a crazy ceiling that makes a nicer photo than a ceiling.

If anyone can tell me anything about this building… I will be eternally grateful. It is, according to the sign on the door, the Missionari del Sacro Cuore de Gesù, directly opposite Borromini’s Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza, on Corso Rinsascimento. It’s one of the buildings that intrigues me most of all in Rome. I can’t even tell when it was built. 1920s? It has an air of Swedish Grace about it (Stockholm Library anyone?). If you know any more, and I must confess my initial internet research made me feel like I was tumbling into the world of Opus Dei – well, I’d be really grateful if you’d get in touch.

A good little bit of Fascist lettering on a building next door.

It had been a fantastic day. I stopped for a beer or two at Bar del Fico. I am sure one or two readers will enjoy the view…

… of the terracotta apartment buildings opposite.

The evening sunlight was beautiful on the Spanish Steps on my way home.

The following morning. Somewhere in the heart of the eternal city… you could feel a tiny bit of anguish. I guess we’ve all got it right now. The following photograph was a not uncommon scene.

I was making my way to the Pantheon, early, which you may have read about already, here.

And from there, I was heading to the Capitoline Museum, one of my favourite in Rome. I will admit to saying that the Jesuit church isn’t quite my thing… but it is pretty remarkable in itself:

Curiously, I loved the fact that the colossal fragments in the courtyard of the Capitoline had been rather neatly boxed while building work was underway. It made one look at them in a whole new light.

One had in mind, just for a start, the crates of antiquities shipped over to their newly-constructed palaces by the English Milordi in the 18th century.

If I had one hour only to spend in Rome, I’d go straight to the sculpture galleries at the Capitoline.

I love this flight of stairs around the back of the Campidoglio.

After a monumental afternoon thunderstorm, when I ran down to the Pantheon and was soaked to the skin, it was time to make my way to Galleria Borghese.

The gardens of the villa Borghese were looking remarkable, post-saturation, but now in hot sunshine.

I am sure we all desire a bird cage like this.

Photography inside the Galleria Borghese is strictly forbidden. You will be glad to know I didn’t find that out immediately.

I loved the Eygptian Room.

And, even more, this insane open Loggia.

The striated stone decoration is entirely painted.

Eventually it was time to leave.

A small neoclassical moment at the northern end of Piazza del Popolo.

My last day was a visit to Palazzo Farnese… the French Embassy – perhaps one of the most remarkable buildings in Rome. Here, photography really was strictly forbidden. Which is lucky, because it could be argued the blog is… long enough. My planned lunch target was closed for il Ferie. But I had a great stop here… during another massive thunderstorm, right around the corner. I can’t recommend caffe Peru highly enough.

I made my way back from Piazza Farnese to my hotel, where I had packed my bags early that morning, sad to be heading home. Always the best way.

I hope you don’t feel too exhausted at the end of reading this blog. Almost as much a commitment as taking a holiday. I trust you recover soon.


24 comments on this post

M Caton Campbellsays:

No recovery necessary, when what you write and photograph is bliss.

s psays:

…bravo. really wonderful post (as always) – the observant eye!


Thank you so much… I lived in Rome for one year and everyday I miss it!
The color of the buildings, the sunlight, the people in the streets, and … the food!!!!
Really enjoyed traveling through your photos!


In complete agreement about that building behind the gorgeous young man on his Apple!


Hi Ben, I believe the building which fascinated you so much is in fact the rear of a church in Piazza Navona. Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore is in the care of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, who have their headquarters there.
“The fabric of the church is invisible from the street, apart from the façade on the Piazza Navona. This is very misleading. Looking at it, you will see two storeys. In fact, only the first storey fronts the church; the second storey is in front of the domestic apartments which are located above the church for its entire length. These now house the Provincialate of the Missionaries, and used to be part of the Spanish hospice. In other words, the church has no independent architectural identity.

There was no campanile, and the church does not now seem to have a place to hang bells.

Main entrance
As mentioned, the main entrance is now on the Corso del Rinascimento. The 1930’s building that you will find there, rendered in faded pale orange with a colonnaded loggia under the roofline, has an old doorway which has been saved and re-erected. Above it is a large and rather miserable apology for an oculus in a molded stone frame. However, the entrance itself is worth examining. The doorcase, in marble with moldings, has the arms of the Kingdom of Spain on its lintel. Above it is a frieze displaying the scallop shells which are the emblem of St James, and above that is a slightly oversized pediment with egg-and-dart decoration.” You can read more here, Thank you for the beautiful post, Rome holds a special place in my heart.

Ben, thank you for another ravishing post! I have not personally been to Rome (yet) but, as others have commented, after reading the blog I feel like I’ve been there with you. Your photos are so evocative! I love how the staggered roofs of the Campidoglio houses mimic the descent of the stairs (did those cars just roll down the steps??) It is all so lovely, the humble, everyday buildings, in their own way, as much as the grander edifices. Thank you for sharing. Arrivederci Roma!

Steve Truncellitosays:

Again a great post about your Roman adventures. You were correct to surmise that one or two readers would enjoy the view at the Bar de Fico. Thanks for sharing the varied beauties of the Italian capital.

Liza Vandermeersays:

Wonderful post! I think your next book needs to be a travel guide , including suggestions on where the most beautiful young men are likely to be spotted.

Aaah! Lots of beauty here. Your pictures made me feel like I’ve been there too. Thanks for sharing.

Pierre Bourassasays:

So many of your photographs are also beautiful… as photographs!

Kevin Kornegaysays:

I feel quite like I’ve been in Rome, looking at these lovely photographs. Thank you!


Aren’t you so glad that you chose such a ‘Roman’ colour for your kitchen at the O.P.? Just need to keep a nice stock of Peroni on hand; a sunny lunch at the kitchen table becomes your portal back to Rome.


I just have to say you beat Francesco da Mosto hands down for guidance even though his brief was obviously, well, brief. Apart from the amount of stone, sculpture, painting, natives, signage, and other delights, I adore those giant toes!! Thank you very much for the tour and taking the trouble to take and post the photographs; and welcome home.

A tiny Gentlemen’s Outfitters for tiny Gentlemen? The photo of the lady “driving the desk” is priceless, and she is definitely my new role model! Thank you.


Thank you for the photos. It reminds me of an architecture field trip to Rome I went on when I was at the Bartlett some eleven years ago. I found a wonderfully dilapidated temple down by the Tiber I spent a couple of days drawing.

Incidentally I saw you doppelgänger earlier today – recoiling from a medical manikin at an auction house!


Thank you so much for this vicarious trip to Rome! Yes, it was long, but I hardly noticed, and it was worth it!


This brings back such memories Ben. I went to Rome with a friend to cram for an art history exam. Days were spent walking through the sculpture galleries and gardens; nights were for tests: spelling, birth/death dates and key themes. “Caravaggio (one v, 2 g’s), c. 1571-1610, the homoerotic”. How we remembered it all, considering the OCEANS of cheap wine consumed, I’ll never know.


Thanks Ben, the nicest 10 minutes I’ve had for a long time, transported back to a captivating city.


I’ve never been to Rome in person, but today I’ve been on a whistle stop tour with you, leaving me exhausted and footsore on your behalf and in need of a cup of tea. Thank you for a beautiful glimpse of treats in store. I’m glad to see that Rome was also hot despite the rain – something for everyone.

JP Rowlessays:

Wonderful photos 7 commentary.

You are too right that so many buildings are over restored. in the UK. Thus preventing us from enjoying buildings in the ‘full richness of their authenticity’ as The Venice Charter / ICOMOS would put it.

Vanessa Ryallsays:

That was such a treat.Thankyou.

A fascinating insight into the intimacies of Rome seen through your eyes, even more so because everything is so un-British. I love the fact that so little is changed and how much more decorative are the shop signs instead of the ubiquitous Macdonalds etc. Rome has its own character whereas our cities are all much of a muchness.

S O'Gormansays:

Utterly fantastic, thank you. Saw Plein Soleil recently – packed full of all the above Roman glam, Tipografia Sicilia, Fiats etc. And Alain Delon’s not uneasy on the eye (- its on at the Curzon!)

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